37 BCE–70 CE


SO WHY did the Roman control of Jerusalem established by force of arms in 37 BCE end in the destruction of the city just over a century later? Clearly, as we have seen in Part II, the disaster was not inevitable. Nor was violence continuous: a long-lived Jerusalemite could have passed the whole period from 6 to 66 CE without ever witnessing the horrors of war.

Herod's iron repression of dissent from 37 to his death in 4 BCE prevented any need for Roman intervention in Judaea, but when he died the country descended into chaos for some months. Publius Quinctilius Varus, governor of Syria and later in his career commander of the three legions lost in Germany in 9 CE, marched south from Antioch to restore order. The causes of the disturbances he found were various, but not, or at any rate not all, anti-Roman. The Judaean populace had been left in a state of heightened tension when Herod died: one of his last acts had been to order that the teachers who had incited the people to tear down the image of an eagle, which he had installed above the Temple gate, should be burned alive as punishment for insurrection.1 Intrigue between his sons in his last days, and even as the old king lay dying, had robbed the country of the most competent members of his family, in particular his two sons by the Has-monaean Mariamme (both executed in 7 BCE) and an older son (by a different wife), the scheming Antipater, killed unceremoniously by Herod's bodyguards just days before Herod's own death.2 Herod's third and final will, drawn up on his deathbed, named his son Archelaus as successor to the throne, but Archelaus had to seek ratification from Augustus for his father's wishes, and, when he arrived in Rome for this purpose, he found himself opposed by other members of his family—notably Herod Antipas, who had been appointed to the succession in the second will, only revoked at the last moment. In the absence as yet of an approved heir to Herod, the emperor's financial agent in Syria, a certain Sabinus, went to Judaea to take charge of the king's extensive properties. As a financial official, this man had no formal governmental role, but public and private ownership were not easily distinguished in the case of a king, and Sabinus was sucked into the atmosphere of violence, confident that he would overcome the rebels with the aid of a legion left in Jerusalem by Varus to keep order and of “a large number of his own slaves whom he had armed.” The result was intense fighting during the pilgrim festival of Tabernacles in the early autumn, much of it in and around the Temple, to which Sabinus' men finally set fire. The Romans got possession of the Temple treasury, where the sacred funds were kept, “and a great part of these were stolen by the soldiers, while Sabinus openly took four hundred talents for himself,” or so Josephus alleges.3

Such fighting, perhaps particularly because of the desecration of the Temple, and the lack of a legitimate central authority, encouraged outbreaks of violence all over the country. Soldiers who had been loyal to Herod could not decide whether to side with the Romans or the Jews. In Jerusalem, most of the royal troops joined the rebels but three thousand of Herod's pagan soldiers from Sebaste threw in their lot with Sabinus. Two thousand veterans rose in arms in Judaea, “either in hope of personal gain or out of hatred of the Jews,” forcing the troops under Herod's cousin Achiab to retreat to the hills. In Galilee, Judas, son of the brigand Ezekias who had been captured and killed by Herod back in the 40s BCE, gathered a force which captured the royal palace in Sepphoris and seized all the weapons stored there. “He became an object of terror to all men by plundering those he came across in his desire for great possessions and his ambition for royal honour.” The royal palace in Jericho was plundered by the local followers of a certain Simon, “a slave of King Herod but a handsome man, prominent in size and physical strength,” and a period of looting followed until they were destroyed, in a long and great battle, by a combination of Roman and royal forces. Simon's head was cut off. Yet another group burned down one of Herod's palaces on the river Jordan. Rather longer lasting was the uprising led by a certain Athronges,

a man distinguished neither for the position of his ancestors nor by the excellence of his character, nor for any abundance of means but merely a shepherd completely unknown to everybody although he was remarkable for his great stature and feats of strength … This man kept his power for a long while, for he had the title of king and nothing to prevent him from doing as he wished. He and his brothers also applied themselves vigorously to slaughtering the Romans and the king's men, towards both of whom they acted with a similar hatred, towards the latter because of the arrogance that they had shown during the reign of Herod, and towards the Romans because of the injuries that they were held to have inflicted at the present time.

Josephus' judgement on all these disturbances is concise: “And so Judaea was filled with brigandage. Anyone might make himself king as the head of a band of rebels whom he fell in with, and then would press on to the destruction of the community, causing trouble to few Romans, and then only to a small degree, but bringing the greatest slaughter upon their own people.” When Varus learned from Sabinus what was happening, and particularly about the legion being besieged in Jerusalem, he marched rapidly from Antioch with his two other legions to restore order. On the way south a detachment of troops captured Sepphoris, reduced its inhabitants to slavery, and burned down the city, and Varus ordered the destruction of the town of Emmaus, “in revenge for those who had been killed there,” the inhabitants having already abandoned their homes. Prudently, in the light of such ruthlessness, the Jews who had been besieging Sabinus in Jerusalem scattered at the approach of the army, and the locals left in the city claimed (successfully) to have been on the Roman side all along, “saying that the populace had come together because of the festival and that they had been involved in the war not of their own will but through the recklessness of the newcomers, for they had been under siege along with the Romans rather than having the desire to besiege them.” Varus' final actions in Judaea before he returned to Antioch show that both he and the emperor appreciated the complex internal power struggles behind many of these disturbances, and (most crucially) the fact that many of those involved had not been motivated by hostility to Rome, since he “pardoned the great majority of those guilty of revolting but sent to Caesar any who had been their leaders. Caesar let most of them go and punished only those relatives of Herod who had joined them in fighting, because they had shown contempt for justice in fighting against their own side.”4

After the initial assault on the Temple by Sabinus, the city of Jerusalem survived these upheavals with less trauma than might have been expected. There was no mass bloodletting as in 63 and 37 BCE, and no massed ranks of captives taken into slavery. The only violent episode from this year Tacitus deemed worthy of recall in his brief summary of Jewish–Roman relations before 66 CE was the uprising of the ex-slave Simon in Transjordan, who “assumed the name of king without waiting for Caesar's decision. He, however, was put to death by Quinctilius Varus, governor of Syria, and the sons of Herod ruled over a nation restrained and divided into three.” Tacitus has nothing at all to say about events in Jerusalem, although when his older contemporary Josephus enumerates in Against Apion the invasions of Judaea which required the priests to compile fresh records of priestly lineages from the archives and to disallow priestly marriages with captive women, his list includes—along with the sieges by Antiochus Epiphanes and Pompey, and the war of 66—70 (“in our own times”)—the invasion by Quinctilius Varus, suggesting that, compared to the chaotic conditions in 4 BCE until Archelaus finally returned from Rome with a mandate from Augustus to rule, the next seventy years to 66 were to be a long period of stability and peace.5

Roman governors did march from Syria to Judaea on a number of occasions within these seventy years, but they came not to suppress insurrection but as a precautionary measure, to forestall opposition to Roman actions which Rome feared might be inflammatory. Thus in 6 CE, when Archelaus was deposed from his rule in Judaea at the request of some of his subjects, and replaced by a Roman governor, it was rational for Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, governor of Syria, to expect the Jews to feel hostility both towards the end, after centuries, to rule in Jerusalem by a Jew (whether as king or High Priest or with some other title) and (more seriously) towards the imposition of a Roman census and Roman land taxes. Exactions of tribute were said to have provoked an uprising in Dalmatia in 10 BCE, and the Dalmatian Bato, who raised rebellion in Illyricum in 6 CE itself, explained to Tiberius when he eventually surrendered in 9 CE that he too had been stung into action in opposition to taxation: his people had revolted because the Romans sent to guard their flocks were “not dogs nor shepherds, but wolves.” It would be unsurprising if similar hostility was encountered in Judaea. Josephus in fact states explicitly that the Jews at first took hard the news about the registration of property, and that opposition was only stifled by the persuasion of the High Priest Joazar, son of Boethus. The brief flurry of resistance to taxation, led by a certain Judas who came from outside Judaea, was presumably suppressed by force, although no evidence survives of the extent of the military campaign required. According to Gamaliel, as quoted in Acts, “Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew many people after him, but he also perished, and all who obeyed him were dispersed.” The first census bulked sufficiently large in the folk memory of Judaea to form the background to the birth narrative of Jesus found in the Gospel of Luke: “And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world was to be registered … And all went to be registered, every one to his own city.” Evidently the census marked significant change—but not, apparently, violence on a scale to register with Roman historians as did contemporary uprisings in other parts of the empire.6

The reason for a show of force in 40 CE was even more clear-cut when Gaius had decided that his amour-propre required that his statue be placed for worship in the Jerusalem Temple. As we have seen, he instructed Pub-lius Petronius, governor of Syria, to take two legions to Jerusalem to carry out his wishes. Petronius knew that so sacrilegious an action would be bound to evoke Jewish horror and that it would risk instigating an uprising. He wrote first to the emperor to urge him to delay, at least until the harvest had been gathered in, and then, persuaded of the seriousness of the matter by the pleas of a deputation of Jews, including the brother of Agrippa I, returned to Antioch with his mission abandoned, as Josephus records:

The multitude cried out that they were ready to endure everything for the law. Petronius, having checked their clamour, said, “Will you then go to war with Caesar?” The Jews replied that they offered sacrifice twice daily for Caesar and the Roman people, but that if he wished to set up these statues, he must first sacrifice the entire Jewish nation; and that they presented themselves, their wives and their children, ready for the slaughter. These words filled Petronius with astonishment and pity at the spectacle of the incomparable devotion of this people to their religion and their unflinching resignation to death. So for the time he dismissed them, nothing being decided. During the ensuing days he held crowded private conferences with the powerful, and public meetings with the people; at these he had recourse alternatively to entreaty, to advice, most often, however, to threats, holding over their heads the might of the Romans, the fury of Gaius, and the necessity which circumstances imposed upon himself. As, however, none of these efforts would induce them to yield, and as he saw that the country was in danger of remaining unsown—for it was seed-time and the people had spent fifty days idly waiting upon him—he finally called them together and said: “It is better that I should take the risk. Either, God aiding me, I shall prevail with Caesar and have the satisfaction of saving myself as well as you, or, if his indignation is roused, I am ready on behalf of the lives of so many to surrender my own.” With that he dismissed the multitude, who rained blessings on his head.

Fortunately for Petronius, in due course Gaius was murdered before the governor suffered the inevitable fate for such wilful disobedience. Tacitus writes succinctly that “when Caligula ordered the Jews to set up his statue in their temple, they chose rather to resort to arms, but the emperor's death put an end to their uprising,” but neither Philo, who was a contemporary of the episode, nor Josephus mentions any actual fighting, and their accounts are probably more accurate. But the same desperation which, according to Josephus, prepared the Jews for mass martyrdom could as easily have turned to mass violence.7

The mass protests against Gaius' plans were clearly motivated by religious zeal, but it is also clear that the tensions aroused in 40, as in 6 CE, were exceptional, and provoked less by movements, philosophies or pressures within Jewish society than by administrative decisions emanating from the government in Rome. Josephus is concerned in his two narratives of the political history of Jerusalem from 6 to 66 to enumerate and deplore all the incidents of violence that might be seen as having led to the conflagration that eventually overtook his native city. When one considers the length of time, sixty years, the list he provides is not extensive, and the small number of troops sufficient to suppress occasional disturbances shows them to have been of little significance. Quite how unimportant the incidents reported by Josephus were emerges clearly from a comparison of his version of events in Judaea in the reign of Tiberius with that given by the senatorial historian Tacitus. In Josephus' account, the long rule of Pontius Pilate as governor of Judaea, from 26 to 36, evoked a series of disturbances quelled only with force. The cause in each case was Pilate's lack of tact and his stubborn unwillingness to listen to complaints even on quite trivial issues—according to Philo, Pilate's contemporary, Agrippa I, described him in a letter sent to Gaius in 40 as “vindictive, with a furious temper.” Josephus writes about demonstrations against Pilate when he used money sacred to the Temple to pay for an aqueduct to improve the water supply to Jerusalem, and further unrest at his introduction of military standards, bearing the image of the emperor, into the holy city. Appreciating the religious sensitivities behind Jewish objections to such action required a degree of empathy with his subjects that Pilate seems to have been unwilling to show, preferring the threat or use of violence. The crowd which besieged his tribunal in Jerusalem to complain about the use of sacred moneys for secular purposes was dispersed by soldiers “armed but disguised in civilian dress, with orders not to use their swords, but to beat any rioters with cudgels … Large numbers of the Jews perished, some from the blows which they received, others trodden to death by their companions in the ensuing flight. Cowed by the fate of the victims, the multitude was reduced to silence.” It is easy enough to imagine how such an episode could take its place in Jewish folk memory of suffering under the Romans, and it seems fairly certain that Josephus' narratives came from the Jewish side rather than from any official Roman report. By contrast, the comment of the Roman Tacitus on all such minor incidents was characteristically terse. In contrast to the fighting with Quinctilius Varus in 4 BCE and the uprising against Gaius' megalomaniac plans for his statue in 40 CE,sub Tiberio quies, “under Tiberius [that is, from 14 to 37 CE], all was quiet.”8

In Tacitus' account, the condition of public affairs in Judaea declined after Gaius' death because of the low social origins of the governors, Roman equites or freedmen: “one of the latter, Antonius Felix, practised every kind of cruelty and lust, wielding the power of a king with all the instincts of a slave.” Such comments may reflect little more than social snobbery. Josephus too tells rather more stories about problems in the province in the period from 44 to 66 CE than in the earlier part of the century, perhaps reflecting only the lack of good information available to him about events which had occurred before his birth in 37, compared to his firsthand witness to the problems of Jerusalem from the 40s to the destruction of the city. It is all the more striking that much of the unrest and violence in Judaea recorded by Josephus in the reigns of Claudius and Nero was not really anti-Roman. The dispute between the Temple authorities and the procurator Cuspius Fadus in 44, over who should retain control of the vestments of the High Priest, became sufficiently bitter to require the governor of Syria to visit Jerusalem to mediate, but the issue was never likely to be violent, and it was eventually settled, after a Jewish embassy went to Rome, by decision of the emperor. More bloody was the suppression by the same procurator of an “impostor” or “sorcerer” called The-udas, who gathered a large crowd of followers and persuaded them to take up their possessions and follow him down to the river Jordan. According to Josephus, “he stated that he was a prophet and that at his command the river would be parted and would provide them easy passage.” Such claims sound fairly harmless, and whether he intended any action against Rome is unknown—since his followers seem to have been unarmed, success in that direction would have required divine intervention. In any case, Fadus did not wait to find out. He sent a squadron of cavalry. Many of Theudas' followers were captured, many others killed. Theudas' head was cut off and brought to Jerusalem. Hence the dismissive words of Gamaliel as reported in Acts: “For before these days rose up Theudas, boasting himself to be somebody; to whom a number of men, about four hundred, joined themselves; he was slain, and all who obeyed him were scattered and brought to nothing.”9

Bloodshed in the years following seems always to have been the result of quite specific incidents. During the festival of Passover in the late 40s or early 50s a Roman soldier bared himself, turned his backside to the assembled pilgrims and let out a noise like a fart, according to Josephus' account in his Jewish War; in the parallel narrative in the Antiquities, the insult was to display his genitals. (The accounts are of course not incompatible. Perhaps this was a cultural misunderstanding and Romans felt able blithely to joke about nudity and bodily functions in a way that Jews found disgusting.) In any case, the result was uproar, and when the governor, Ventidius Cumanus, brought in troops to quieten the mob, the rioters panicked and thousands—Josephus writes “twenty thousand”—died in the stampede through the narrow streets. It is as well to recognize in such incidents not the behaviour of an occupying force in fear of imminent revolt, but rather a governor uncertain when best to act tough, when to concede, in order to ensure efficient policing. Similarly heavy-handed and ill-judged was Cumanus' reaction to an isolated act of brigandage, when (in c. 50) some Jewish bandits attacked “a certain Stephen, a slave of Caesar” on the public road leading up to Bethhoron, twelve miles or so north-west of Jerusalem, and robbed him of his baggage. Cumanus responded by sending troops around the neighbouring villages with orders to bring the inhabitants to him in chains, reprimanding them for not having pursued and arrested the robbers. This is the account that Josephus gives in his Jewish War; according to the Antiquities, Cumanus “dispatched soldiers with orders to plunder the neighbouring villages and to bring before him their most eminent men in chains so that he might exact vengeance for their effrontery,” which suggests an assumption of their complicity in the crime. Perhaps the rumours which reached Jerusalem, where Josephus was living in his early teens, were confused. In any case, the collective punishment misfired badly.

One of the soldiers, who had found a copy of the laws of Moses that was kept in one of the villages, fetched it out where all could see and tore it in two while he uttered blasphemies and railed violently. The Jews, on learning of this, collected in large numbers, went down to Caesarea, where Cumanus happened to be, and besought him to avenge not them but God, whose laws had been subjected to outrage. For, they said, they could not endure to live, since their ancestral code was thus wantonly insulted.

Cumanus' response to the delegation showed that Roman government was working, albeit imperfectly. Cumanus had evidently not sanctioned the soldier's sacrilegious behaviour. After consulting with his friends, he had the man led to execution through the ranks of his accusers, and beheaded. On this occasion the anger of the Jews was thus effectively defused.10

The final downfall of Cumanus came about in c. 52 through a riot caused neither by Roman tactlessness to their Jewish subjects nor by Jewish rebelliousness against Rome but as a by-product of traditional hostility between Jews and Samaritans when, as we saw in Chapter 9, some Jews from Galilee were ambushed in Samaria on the way to Jerusalem. Cumanus' response to the outrage was slow—the Jews alleged bribery by the Samaritans—and a mob from Jerusalem took violent revenge on the Samaritan villages where the incident had occurred, provoking in turn a Roman clampdown. The whole mess was sorted out once again by the governor of Syria, to whom both Jews and Samaritans sent embassies to complain, and Cumanus lost his job. It was presumably this last element in the story—the fall from grace of an imperial bureaucrat—which brought the affair to the attention of the senatorial historian Tacitus. At any rate, this was the aspect on which he concentrated in his brief and probably muddled notice about events in Judaea during the latter years of Claudius' rule.11

The unimpressive quality of the governors sent by Rome to Judaea was reflected by Tacitus also in his denigratory comments, already cited, about Cumanus' successor, the ex-slave Felix, and Josephus states explicitly that under Felix's rule, c. 52–60, Judaean society began to disintegrate. “The impostors and brigands, banding together, incited many to revolt, exhorting them to freedom, and threatening death to those who obeyed the domination of the Romans and saying they would forcibly suppress those who willingly accepted slavery.” This general description by Josephus seems to imply the beginnings of rebellion against Rome, but it is strikingly unconfirmed by the two detailed narratives he wrote about events in Judaea during these years, which he witnessed firsthand as a teenager and in his early twenties. Those narratives, in the Jewish War and the Antiquities, portray a society not so much on the brink of insurrection as riven by internal dissensions and banditry.

Thus Josephus notes that Felix began his rule by clearing out brigandage from the countryside, but also notes that banditry was a longstanding problem in the hill regions: the brigand leader, Eleazar, who was captured and sent to Rome with many of his associates, had ravaged the country for twenty years, and “an incalculable number of ordinary people convicted of complicity” were punished. There was nothing particularly unusual either about the problem here faced, or Felix's solution: banditry was endemic in the less accessible regions of the empire, frequently with the tacit support of the local rural population, and its suppression was a standard task for all governors. More unusual was the emergence of “a new species of bandit,” specific to Jerusalem, the so-calledsicarii,

who committed murders in broad daylight in the heart of the city. The festivals were their special seasons, when they would mingle with the crowd, carrying short daggers concealed under their clothing, with which they stabbed their enemies. Then, when they fell, the murderers joined in the cries of indignation and, through their plausible behaviour, were never discovered … The panic created was more alarming than the calamity itself, everyone, as on the battlefield, hourly expecting death. Men kept watch at a distance on enemies and would not trust even their friends when they approached.

Josephus' vivid description suggests terrorism within Jewish society rather than revolt against Rome, and indeed he specifically states in the Antiquities that people suspected that the first victim of the sicarii, the former High Priest Jonathan son of Ananus, had been killed at the instigation of the Roman governor himself. At the same time, “there arose another body of villains, with purer hands but more impious intentions.” These “deceivers and impostors” pretended to be inspired while bringing about “revolution and changes,” persuading the multitude to go crazy, leading them out into the desert on the grounds that there God would show them “signs of liberty”; so Josephus writes in the Jewish War, although in Antiquities the impostors are said to have promised “unmistakable marvels and signs that would occur according to God's foresight,” without any indication of the content of this divine revelation. It is not at all clear that such rather unworldly behaviour was a threat to Roman rule, any more than that of Theudas some decades earlier, but Felix, like his predecessor as governor, did not wait to find out. He treated such acts as preliminaries to insurrection and destroyed their perpetrators with a military force.12

Of only one such “pseudo-prophet” did Josephus assert a specifically anti-Roman agenda, the Egyptian who, as we have seen, led a crowd by a roundabout route from the desert to the Mount of Olives, where “he prepared to force an entrance into Jerusalem and, after overpowering the Roman garrison, to set himself up as tyrant of the people, employing those who poured in with him as his bodyguard.” In the parallel account in Antiquities, Josephus alleges that this prophet claimed that forcing an entrance would be unnecessary, because at his command Jerusalem's walls would fall down. In one account Josephus ascribes thirty thousand followers to this inspired leader, stating that “most of his force” was killed or taken prisoner in the ensuing battle with Felix's infantry, although the Egyptian himself escaped; in the parallel narrative, casualties were given as four hundred dead and two hundred prisoners. The numbers involved were evidently considerable in either case, so it is particularly significant that Josephus explicitly asserts that, far from the Egyptian enjoying mass support, “all the people” joined Felix in the armed defence of the city against this outsider. It seems that when, as Josephus states, the “brigands” incited the people to war with Rome, most of the people refused to comply. The uprising and defeat of this unnamed Egyptian Jew was sufficiently notorious in the history of Judaea in that decade for Paul to be mistaken for him by the captain of the guard which took him captive in Jerusalem. By contrast, the charlatan said to have played a similar trick in the time of Fes-tus, successor (60—62 CE) to Felix as governor, is not only unnamed in Josephus' sole account (in the Antiquities), but goes completely unnoticed in Josephus' narrative of the lead-up to revolt in his Jewish War. In his earlier history Josephus evidently did not feel that the story of another group of misguided Jews, killed by Roman forces in the wilderness to which they were led by their leader, who promised them “salvation and rest from evils if they chose to follow him,” significant enough to deserve mention.13

This catalogue of sporadic incidents should not suggest that Jerusalem in these years was really a haven of peace, only that the tensions about which Josephus complains in general turn out from his detailed narrative to have been largely internal to Jewish society rather than symptoms of widespread resentment of Roman rule. The actions of brigands in looting the houses of the wealthy and murdering their owners were part of the class warfare which Josephus sums up in his account of the causes of the Jewish war towards the end of his narrative of the conflict, when “no deed of iniquity was left unperpetrated … those in power oppressing the masses, and the masses eager to destroy the powerful. These were bent on tyranny, those on violence and plundering the property of the wealthy,” but the causes of such class resentment lay less in Roman rule than in the inequitable distribution of resources within what was an essentially prosperous society. The wealth attracted into Jerusalem from all over the Jewish world made the rich richer, but, for many of the poor, rising levels of land prices helped create new burdens of debt, and it was not accidental that one of the first actions of the rebels against Rome in 66 CE was to burn down the debt archives in the hope of encouraging debtors to join their number. If attacks on rich Judaeans sometimes looked like attacks on Roman rule, this was because, as has been seen, the local leaders through whom Rome ruled the province were wealthy. It was of course in the interests of the rich to portray themselves as victims of anti-Roman sentiment in the hope of stimulating a more vigorous protection of their interests by the Roman governor and his forces. But in fact the local ruling class was itself responsible, quite separately from the disruption by brigands or religious fanatics, for much of the disorder in Judaean society during the years leading up to revolt in 66, not because they disliked Roman rule (from which they benefited) but because the weakness of successive Roman governors gave an opportunity for factions within the elite supported by Rome to struggle between themselves for power. As we saw in the Prologue, the declaration of an independent Jewish state in 66 did not dampen such strife within Jewish society but gave it more scope, so that for most of the time until spring 70 the Jewish rebels were largely preoccupied in fighting not Romans but each other.14

If Josephus (and indeed Tacitus) are to be believed, underlying the incompetence of Roman governors was their venality. Josephus' condemnation of Albinus, governor from 62 to 64, is damning:

There was no form of villainy which he omitted to practise. Not only did he, in his official capacity, steal and plunder private property and burden the whole nation with extraordinary taxes, but he accepted ransoms from their relatives on behalf of those who had been imprisoned for robbery by the local councils or by former procurators; and the only persons left in gaol as malefactors were those who failed to pay the price. Now, too, the audacity of the revolutionary party in Jerusalem was stimulated; the influential men among their number secured from Albinus, by means of bribes, immunity for their seditious practices; while of the populace all who were dissatisfied with peace joined hands with the governor's accomplices. Each ruffian, with his own band of followers grouped around him, towered above his company like a brigand chief or tyrant, employing his bodyguard to plunder peaceable citizens.

Josephus' verdict on Albinus' successor, Gessius Florus, the last governor of Judaea, under whom revolt broke out, is even more vitriolic: “The crimes of Albinus were, for the most part, perpetrated in secret and with dissimulation; Gessius, on the contrary, ostentatiously paraded his outrages upon the nation … To make gain out of individuals seemed beneath him: he stripped whole cities, ruined entire populations, and almost went the length of proclaiming throughout the country that all were at liberty to practise brigandage, on condition that he received his share of the spoils.” Such polemic, composed by a historian unashamedly partisan in his dismay at the unhappy fate which had eventually befallen his home city, was not of course exactly objective, and these former governors were easy Roman scapegoats by the time Josephus was writing, since none of them, apart from the apostate Jew Tiberius Julius Alexander, is known to have enjoyed a successful political career after 70. But the difficulties inherent in controlling the greed of provincial governors in the imperial period, when such governors were appointed by the emperor, were considerable, and the scope for enrichment well recognized. It was a remarkable achievement, considered worth noting in the biography of Agricola by his son-in-law Tacitus, that the former had managed to serve as quaestor in the province of Asia without enriching himself in the process, even though “the wealth of the province made it easy prey to the unscrupulous.”15

Right up to the outbreak of insurrection in 66, the Jerusalem populace reacted to such poor Roman government in precisely the ways that the imperial system expected and encouraged, by sending deputations to the governors themselves or, when that proved ineffective, either to the governor of Syria or (in extreme cases) to the emperor himself. Problems arose less from Jewish hostility to the system than from the obstacles faced by the complainants in trying to get their voices heard and from the poor quality of some of the decisions taken both in Syria and in Rome. Josephus traced in some detail the long and bitter dispute between Jews and gentiles in the city of Caesarea which by the 50s was claimed by Jews as theirs, because it had been founded by the Jewish king Herod, but also by the local “Syrian” gentiles as theirs, because it had been the site of a gentile settlement before Herod and because Herod's erection of statues and temples showed that he had intended his new foundation to be pagan. Intercommunal violence in the city was temporarily crushed by the military force at the disposal of the governor Felix, and to resolve the issue embassies were sent from both sides to Nero in Rome, but when Nero favoured the arguments of the gentile inhabitants, the Jews were not satisfied and Josephus reports the allegation of corruption: “The leader of the Syrians in Caesarea, by offering a large bribe, prevailed on Beryllus, who was Nero's tutor and who had been appointed imperial secretary for Greek correspondence, to request a letter from Nero annulling the grant of equal civic rights to the Jews. Beryllus exhorted the emperor and succeeded in getting his authorization for the letter. This letter provided the basis that led to the subsequent misfortunes that befell our nation.” In other cases, difficulties in ensuring safe communication, and the danger that a complaint might leak back to the governor to the detriment of the complainant before any chance of redress, led to passivity even under gross maladministration, so that in Jerusalem in 66, as the situation deteriorated, “so long as Cestius Gallus remained in Syria discharging his provincial duties, none dared even to send a deputation to him to complain about Florus.” Not that access to a forum for complaint made much difference in this case. When Cestius Gallus did visit Jerusalem on Passover, “a crowd of not less than three millions [!] implored him to have compassion on the nation and loudly denounced Florus as the ruin of the country,” but Florus was standing next to Cestius, scoffing at their words, and Cestius must have been aware that the Judaean governor, who had acquired his post through the influence of his wife, Cleopatra, on Nero's beloved wife Poppaea, might have friends in high places in Rome. At any rate, all that he did, before returning to Antioch, was to promise that he would ensure more moderate behaviour from Florus in the future—which meant that, in practice, he did nothing.16

The travails of Judaea up to 66 do not suggest a society on the brink of rebellion for sixty years. The only specific Jewish action described by any ancient writer as clearly hostile to Roman rule in general, and not just opposed to some specific act or acts of the current Roman administration, was the abortive uprising led by “the Egyptian” in the time of Felix, and on that occasion, according to Josephus, “all the people” joined the Roman governor in its suppression. Any argument based on what the ancient narratives do not describe is vulnerable to the possibility that other stories of hostility to Rome may simply have been lost—after all, Josephus referred on a number of occasions to a general collapse of society in these years, without specifying exactly what he meant, and there might easily be minor incidents rapidly forgotten—but strongly in favour of judging Josephus' record of Jewish dissent as more or less complete is the motivation of his histories, and especially his Jewish War. Josephus' declared intention was to explain the outbreak and course of the war from 66 to 70, and for that purpose he ran through the causes of tension between the two parties to the conflict in the sixty years before the war started, in the same way that Thucydides, the historian on whom he modelled his presentation of his subject, had provided a narrative of the fifty years before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian war. Far from omitting causes of conflict, he might be expected to make as much as he could of all the cases he could conceivably cite. When he could provide instead only general authorial prognostications of doom (such as “from that moment particularly, sickness fell upon our city, and everything went steadily from bad to worse”), without indicating how the events described (in this case, power struggles within the ruling class) led to revolt from Rome, his vagueness and reticence may be taken as evidence that there was no real connection to be made, and that the reason he could not describe any more blatantly revolutionary behaviour to support his picture of a decline into war was that no such revolutionary behaviour occurred.17

In fact, once Josephus' historiographical purpose is recognized, what is striking is how little specific evidence he could cite of Jewish hostility to Rome before 66. Writing with hindsight, he can be assumed to have picked out all those incidents which might throw light on the eventual cataclysm. In all historiography events unimportant in their day loom large because of their later significance. Josephus' depiction, in the second book of his Jewish War, of a society heading inexorably to its doom contrasts tellingly with his description, in the sixth book of the same work, of the treatment meted out to an inoffensive prophet named Jesus son of Ananias four years before the war. This Jesus, “a rude peasant,” took to crying out regularly in the Temple a disturbing message: “A voice from the east; a voice from the west; a voice from the four winds; a voice against the bridegroom and the bride; a voice against all the people.” He was arrested by some of the notable citizens and beaten, but that failed to stop his ill-omened words. The Roman governor Albinus also had him beaten, but only elicited between each stroke the cry “Woe to Jerusalem.” Since he declined to say who he was, where he had come from and why he was uttering these imprecations, the governor decided he was mad and let him go. He was to have a long career, uttering his woes for seven years and five months until he was finally killed by a ballista ball during the siege of the city in 70, “having seen his prophecy fulfilled.” But at the beginning of the story, at the festival of Tabernacles in the autumn of 62, such prophecy was alarming precisely because it was implausible. At this time, writes Josephus, Jerusalem, four years before the war, “was especially in a state of peace and prosperity.” It seems evident that deciding whether a society is on the brink of collapse is often a matter of perspective—and much easier to judge after the event than before. In modern society a celebrated or particularly heinous crime will often release an avalanche of newspaper stories about similar cases in previous years, without such cases having any impact on the attitudes or mood of the public in the intervening period.18

It is particularly remarkable that Josephus' detailed narratives of these sixty years make so little mention of any consistent anti-Roman ideology at the heart of all the variegated disturbances he describes, since in his account in Antiquities of the uprising led by Judas at the time of the Roman census in 6 CE he had alleged precisely that the “Fourth Philosophy” begun by Judas and his accomplice Saddok was responsible for the collapse of Jewish society and the eventual destruction of the Temple since

they sowed the seed from which sprang strife between factions and the slaughter of fellow citizens. Some were slain in civil strife, for these men madly had recourse to butchery of each other and of themselves from a longing not to be outdone by their opponents; others were slain by the enemy in war. Then came famine, reserved to exhibit the last degree of shamelessness, followed by the storming and razing of cities until at last the very Temple of God was ravaged by the enemy's fire through this revolt. Here is a lesson that an innovation and reform in ancestral traditions weighs heavily in the scale in leading to the destruction of the congregation of the people.

A second, briefer, account in the Antiquities links Judas in 6 CE even more specifically with the rebellion under Gessius Florus sixty years later:

As for the fourth of the philosophies, Judas the Galilean set himself up as leader of it. This school agrees in all other respects with the opinions of the Pharisees, except that they have a passion for liberty that is almost unconquerable, since they are convinced that God alone is their leader and master … The folly that ensued began to afflict the nation after Gessius Florus, who was governor, had by his overbearing and lawless actions provoked a desperate rebellion against the Romans.

It is all the more striking that, in all the following detailed narrative up to 66 CE, no group or individual in Judaea is ever again said by Josephus to have been prompted by the teachings of this philosophy which, unlike the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes, Josephus leaves unnamed. Since Josephus so strongly disapproved of the Fourth Philosophy, and since he deplored all the incidents of anti-Roman violence which preceded the revolt in 66 both in his Antiquities and in his Jewish War, it seems likely that he would have blamed the Fourth Philosophy for any incident in which it was implicated—and that, since he did not do so, this was because the Fourth Philosophy was not in fact so implicated.

Josephus' silence in this regard can be contrasted to his comments on the varied fates of Judas' descendants. He mentions that Simon and Jacob, Judas' sons, were executed by crucifixion in the mid-40s CE and that in 66, after the outbreak of revolt, “a certain Menahem, son of Judas called the Galilean, that most ingenious sophist who once upon a time under Quirinius had upbraided Jews because they submitted to Romans after [having as master] God,” broke into Herod's armoury on Masada, a massive fortress on the edge of the Dead Sea, and tried unsuccessfully to take over command of the rebel forces in Jerusalem. But Josephus writes nothing about the ideology of Simon and Jacob, or indeed why they had deserved to be put to death, and Menahem, portrayed as behaving in Jerusalem “like a king,” is depicted, probably deliberately, as an adherent of a philosophy directly antithetical to the libertarianism of his ancestor: “believing himself without a rival in the conduct of affairs he became an insufferable tyrant” and, as a result, the original instigators of the revolt against Rome rose against him. “They remarked to each other that, after revolting from the Romans for love of liberty, they ought not to sacrifice this liberty to a Jewish hangman and to put up with a master [note the terminology] who, even if he were to abstain from violence, was anyhow far below themselves.” It seems likely that Judas did indeed teach some novel ideas in 6 CE, but it is very improbable that such ideas were widespread in Judaea in the years immediately before 66, let alone that they were responsible for the most serious acts of opposition to Rome.19

Similar arguments apply to the role, or lack of it, of messianic fervour in the disturbances during these sixty years. Josephus was aware of the promises of the “messianic oracle.” Indeed, in a catalogue of portents, prophecies and oracles which preceded the war, he ends by asserting that “what more than all else incited them to the war was an ambiguous oracle, likewise found in their sacred scriptures, to the effect that at that time one from their country would become ruler of the world. This they understood to mean someone of their own race, and many of their wise men went astray in their interpretation of it.” One would therefore expect to find Josephus describing at least some of the leaders of disruptive movements in Judaea before 66 as such would-be messiahs. But in fact, although he abuses them as “pseudo-prophets,” “charlatans,” “impostors” and “deceivers,” he never ascribes to any of them the delusion that he would become ruler of the world. It is probable that the political force imputed to the oracle by Josephus reflected the important use of the Flavian interpretation of its meaning as referring to Vespasian: the identical account of the oracle's real significance as evidence of divine approbation of Vespasian's imperial ambitions is to be found also in the accounts of Tacitus and Suetonius. By contrast, Josephus does give specific examples in recent history of Jews acting—foolishly, of course—in the light of a more general eschatological hope. As the Temple was burning in 70 CE, “women and children and a mixed crowd up to six thousand” took refuge in the outer court, owing their destruction there to “a false prophet who had on that day proclaimed to the people in the city that God commanded them to go up to the Temple court to receive there the signs of their deliverance.” Such searching for signs from God was exactly what other “impostors” had urged earlier in the century. Perhaps not all sign prophets preached the imminent arrival of the last days, but it does seem likely that advocacy of such radical reliance on divine intervention presupposed a radical change in the political environment which, even if not strictly eschatological, was at least otherworldly. But whether such hopes necessarily posed a threat to Rome was of course a different issue. As some early Christians urged, it was quite possible to hope that one day there would be a new heaven and a new earth while staying loyal to the emperor and the Roman state.20

In favour of remaining loyal to Rome was the generally light hand of Roman rule before 66. Judaea was emphatically not a police state. According to Josephus, Nero was so unconcerned about Jerusalem a year before the revolt broke out that Cestius Gallus took a census of the number of Passover pilgrims in order to persuade him of the city's strength. The governors sent from Italy were of low status precisely because there was no perceived need for a strong military presence. The Roman state maintained a standing army of about a quarter of a million men, but, of these, just a small number of auxiliary cohorts, only one resident in Jerusalem, sufficed for the whole province, around three thousand troops in all. Above all, and most surprisingly in terms of normal Roman government, Jews were permitted to congregate in Jerusalem in vast numbers three times a year at the pilgrim festivals, with the only security precaution the repositioning of a few troops from Caesarea to Jerusalem for the duration. And, although some governors, such as Pontius Pilate, offended Jewish religious sensibilities, they did all make some attempt to be tactful. Thus, uniquely in Judaea, the local bronze coinage minted by the Roman governors reflected local sensitivities, avoiding depiction of any human form, as had also the coins produced by Herod the Great. Human images were so ubiquitous on coins of this period elsewhere in the empire that their absence from local Judaean coins must certainly have been the result of deliberate policy.* Such scruples are all the more remarkable given the widespread use in the province of Roman silver denarii minted elsewhere. Hence the question asked by Jesus of the “Pharisees and Herodians” who, according to the Gospel of Mark, tried to catch him out by asking whether it is lawful to give tribute to Caesar or not. Jesus' response, as recorded in the Gospel, was to ask them to bring him a denarius for him to see. “And they brought it. And he said to them, ‘Whose is this image and inscription?’ And they said to him, ‘Caesar's.’”21

Out of respect for Jewish customs, Jews were also exempted from appearing before a Roman magistrate on a Sabbath, and (though perhaps only on specific occasions) they might be exempted from conscription into Roman military service. Josephus preserves a somewhat garbled series of letters sent by Roman magistrates to the cities of Asia and to other Greek cities insisting that Jews should be granted such privileges. The dossier was undoubtedly selective in the Roman decrees it chose to preserve—indeed, Josephus is quite open about his reasons for including it in his history: “It seems to me necessary to make public all the honours given our nation and the alliances made with them by the Romans and their emperors, in order that the other nations may not fail to recognize that the kings of both Asia and of Europe have held us in esteem and have admired our bravery and loyalty … Against the decrees of the Romans nothing can be said, for they are kept in the public places of the cities and are still to be found engraved on bronze tablets in the Capitol.” It is likely that the rather eclectic corpus which Josephus then proceeds to cite had been gathered together by some other Jew before him, probably in aid of a court case pleading for Jewish rights before a Roman judge. But the privileges seem to have been genuine enough, and special treatment accorded to minority communities of diaspora Jews was a fortiori likely to be granted also to the Jews in their homeland.22


IN THE DIASPORA also, most Jews lived under Roman rule before 66 CE, without apparently feeling themselves at odds with the Roman state. On the contrary, in some parts of the diaspora, such as Asia Minor, Jews relied on intervention by Rome to uphold their rights as members of a minority group in a gentile society, as can be seen from the dossier cited by Josephus. There is no evidence that the Jews of Asia, who constituted a large population in total, suffered at the hands of any Roman governor after the rapacity of Flaccus, who stole gold intended for Jerusalem in the 60s BCE. The Jewish communities of this region seem to have flourished in peace down to late antiquity. The only diaspora community known to have suffered from a persistent threat to its welfare was that of Alexandria in Egypt, and the special reasons for the tribulations of the Jews in that city will be discussed shortly. Elsewhere Jews came to an accommodation with their neighbours and might be grateful for the imperial peace that helped to preserve the status quo, which it was in their interest to defend. But what of course they could not control was the politics of the homeland—and the possibility that events in Judaea might have an impact on Roman policy towards Jews in far distant lands.23

Not that diaspora Jews were always simply victims of decisions taken by their brethren in Jerusalem, since they seem to have taken a close interest in Judaean politics, and just occasionally they even intervened. Soon after the death of Herod in 4 BCE and the disposal of his territory by Augustus to three of the king's surviving sons, a young man appeared in Crete claiming to the Jews there that he was Alexander, one of Herod's sons by the Has-monaean princess Mariamme. This Alexander had in fact been put to death, along with his brother Aristobulus (father of Agrippa I), in 7 BCE, convicted by his father Herod on a charge of treason, but the pretender who usurped his name traded on his alleged Hasmonaean and Herodian ancestry and became a celebrity. Josephus writes cynically that the Jews of Crete gave him much money, and the Jews of Melos even more, “because of their belief that he was of the royal family and their hope that he would recover his father's throne and reward his benefactors.” The young man travelled in style to Italy, escorted by enthusiastic supporters, picking up further backing from the Jewish communities of Puteoli and Rome, where “the whole Jewish population went out to meet him … giving him a joyful welcome because of their racial tie with his mother [Mariamme] whenever he went through the narrow streets riding in a litter. And he had all the trappings of a king, which were provided at their own expense by his private sponsors. Great crowds thronged about him, shouting their good wishes.” In due course this “Alexander” was summoned to Augustus, whose questioning on the whereabouts of Aristobulus (“left on the island of Cyprus out of fear of what might happen at sea,” according to “Alexander”) eventually elicited the youth's true identity as a Jew brought up in the city of Sidon in Phoenicia by a Roman freedman. The impostor's attempt to benefit from his remarkable physical resemblance to Alexander was betrayed by his excessive physical toughness, “in contrast to the softness of the real Alexander's body, resulting from luxury and noble birth.” The youth was condemned to the galleys. The close involvement in this affair of the Jews from the city of Rome may be partly explained by the long period, from 27 to 10 BCE, that the real Alexander had spent in the city when sent there by his father for his education, but the other diaspora Jews who supported him can have known little more than his purported name and lineage. It seems likely that news about political intrigues in Jerusalem gained general currency in these distant communities, and that, even though diaspora Jews could rarely affect what happened in Judaea, they seized what opportunities they had.24

Conversely, the visit by Agrippa I to Alexandria in August 38 CE was a spark for rioting against the local Jews by the Greeks, appalled by the pomp and circumstance of the Jewish king, even though, according to the apologetic account by his contemporary Philo, he had tried his best to enter the city unobtrusively. The situation in Alexandria rapidly escalated, first to the stigmatization of the Jews of the city as foreign aliens and then to a pogrom, with the confinement of the Jews to one quarter of the city, which became in effect a ghetto, and the plunder of their houses and workshops. But, although Agrippa's arrival was the catalyst for this disaster and Philo could claim that the violence came out of the blue, his visit was not really its main cause. The origins of intercommunal tension lay in the earlier history of the city and were only loosely related to Roman rule.

Founded in the fourth century BCE by Alexander the Great, Alexandria had by 31 BCE grown into the greatest city of the Mediterranean world, the capital of the Ptolemaic state, the site of the royal palace and the centre of a huge administrative bureaucracy which controlled all Egypt and beyond. The city was a magnet for settlers, including Jews, who had been granted the right to live in Alexandria by Alexander the Great himself, according to Josephus—a claim to be treated with much suspicion, although there certainly was a large Jewish community in residence by the late third century BCE, a hundred years after the city's foundation. The special status of Alexandria which had led to its phenomenal growth came to an abrupt end in 30 BCE on the death of Cleopatra. With the demise of the Ptolemaic dynasty the city was no longer the capital of a rich and independent kingdom. The city's magistrates, not even permitted to form a municipal council like those standard in other Greek cities under Roman suzerainty, in effect administered a city which was, much more blatantly than Jerusalem, under foreign occupation: in the time of Augustus, a legion and the fleet were stationed in Alexandria itself, and by 23 CE two legions and three auxiliary units were permanently stationed just on the edge of the city, in the Roman camp at Nicopolis. Dispute over the status of the Jewish community in the city allowed the resulting disaffection of the resident Greeks to erupt without them directly confronting their Roman masters. The Romans tried to sort out Jewish civic rights, but to no one's satisfaction. Under Augustus the Jews had a separate state within the state, with their own courts and their own political leader, the ethnarch (literally, “nation-ruler”), while in terms of liability to poll tax, from which Greeks were excused, they were placed by the Romans on the same level as native Egyptians. By the 30s CE the evidence for a recognized Jewish ethnarch has evaporated, and in the intercommunal struggles documented by Philo the Jews are portrayed as demanding isopoliteia,“equal citizenship,” which could mean either equal collective rights (recognition by the state of legal decisions by Jewish courts) or equal individual rights (the right to participate in the affairs of the city as a full citizen), or, quite possibly, both. The Greeks accused the Jews of trying to obtain privileges to which they were not entitled. Rivalry became intemperate. Both sides blamed the Roman authorities for favouring the other. In a corpus of literary works known only from a number of papyri, the Greek magistrates who opposed Jewish demands were celebrated as martyrs at the hands of the wicked Romans in much the same tone as Philo denigrates the tyranny of the prefect Flaccus during the rule of Gaius. According to Josephus' undoubtedly partial account, Claudius on his accession restored the Jews of the city to their former privileges, since the new emperor desired that “none of their rights should be lost to the Jews on account of the madness of Gaius,” but this favour was not unequivocal. His decree ended with an exasperated order: “I enjoin upon both parties to take the greatest precaution to prevent any disturbance arising after the posting of my edict.”25

The serious disturbances which afflicted the Jews of Alexandria, the only such conflicts attested in the diaspora before 66 CE, were probably thus a product of conditions specific to that city, and there is no reason to suppose similar tensions in other places. In a tough letter, of which a copy survives on papyrus, sent to the Jews and Greeks of Alexandria in 41, the emperor Claudius had shown himself aware of the danger that might be posed by scattered Jewish communities if they were to unite against the established order in the city, forbidding the Jews there “to bring in or welcome Jews who come in from Syria or Egypt, which will force me to conceive greater suspicions. If they do, I shall take all possible proceedings against them, on the grounds that they stir up a common plague for the whole world.” But such cooperation in support of fellow inhabitants of the diaspora was rare. One looks in vain for any expression in this period of a fear that Jews might act as a fifth column within the empire. In the speech ascribed by Josephus to Agrippa II on the outbreak of revolt in 66 CE (see Chapter 2), he warned that diaspora Jews within the empire would suffer if war broke out in Jerusalem, but he did not even suggest that such Jews might join in the war on the side of the rebels, though perhaps this omission had a tinge of apologetic: it was not in Josephus' interest to allow even the thought that diaspora Jews might fight Rome, and the possibility of aid from kinsmen beyond the Euphrates, in Parthian territory, alleged by Josephus, in his introductory comments to his account of the war as a whole, to have been a hope of the Jews, is raised by Agrippa in the speech only to be discounted. In general, diaspora Jews were only to come into serious tension with the Roman state when something went drastically wrong in the homeland, such as Gaius' plan to desecrate the Jerusalem Temple by erecting his statue within it. Certainly, for some diaspora Jews, when full-scale revolt broke out in Jerusalem in 66 it proved impossible not to be affected.26

WAR, 66-70 CE

THE ERUPTION of war in Jerusalem in the late spring of 66 was precipitated precisely by the Captain of the Temple, a young priest named Eleazar son of Ananias, who persuaded his fellow priests to stop offering those sacrifices traditionally made to the Jewish God on behalf of the Roman emperor. It was a statement of war by members of the ruling elite on whom the Roman administration could normally rely. They had lost confidence in the governor, Gessius Florus, and in the ability of higher Roman authorities, including the emperor in Rome, to deal satisfactorily with their complaints. A series of incidents, none particularly serious in itself, had escalated into national violence through the inability or unwillingness of the governor to take matters in hand. In Caesarea, the long-running dispute between local Jews and local gentiles came to a head when some gentile youths provoked Jewish riots by sacrificing a cockerel in the alleyway outside a synagogue, and the Jews of the city eventually abandoned the city en masse. When Florus failed to punish the gentile ringleaders of this outrage in Caesarea—a result of bribery, so Josephus alleges—his next appearance in Jerusalem, to collect back taxes, was confronted by a hostile crowd. An exercise in political theatre, in which a group of Jewish youths pretended to collect pennies for the indigent governor, backfired badly when Roman troops were let loose on the crowd. Florus demanded that the “chief priests, nobles and most eminent citizens” hand over the culprits for punishment, but they declined, “imploring pardon for the individuals who had spoken disrespectfully.” The mutual trust between the local elite and the governor was broken. In fury, Florus set his troops on the rampage in the upper market in the south-west of the city, with orders to pillage and loot. Josephus writes that “the total number of that day's victims, including women and children, for even infancy received no quarter, amounted to about three thousand six hundred.” But what really upset the historian and signified the collapse of Roman rule by consensus was the rank of some of those who died, “for Florus ventured that day to do what none had ever done before, namely, to scourge before his tribunal and nail to the cross men of equestrian rank, men who, if Jews by birth, were at least invested with that Roman dignity.”27

Hence, in despair at ever controlling the excesses of Florus, Eleazar son of Ananias and his colleagues among the younger aristocratic priests began the revolt. Without the benefit of diaries or letters written at the time, it is impossible to know precisely what they wanted to achieve or what they expected to happen as a result of their actions. Doubtless different participants had different hopes, private sentiments differed from public proclamations, hopes changed from day to day. Josephus, present in the inner court of the Temple when the fateful decision was taken, was involved in the revolt from the start, but, writing only after its disastrous end and his own change of side, he claims that he had always seen his role as a mediator, trying to bring the uprising to a swift and honourable end with a minimum of destruction. In hindsight such would indeed have been a prudent course, and, as we have seen, it was urged publicly at the time, according to Josephus, by Agrippa II and Berenice. The crucial difference lay in their actions. Once war was inevitable, Agrippa and some other rich Jerusalemites left the city to join the Roman side, whereas Josephus stayed and in October 66 joined the revolutionary government as general in command of the defence of Galilee.28

Whatever the rebels really hoped for, it is easier to establish what they might reasonably have expected to achieve, given the nature of Roman imperial government and previous Roman interest, or lack of it, in Judaea. It was out of the question that the Romans would not react at all, any more than the state had allowed affairs in Judaea to drift in 4 BCE after Herod died, but it was not wildly over-optimistic to dream of a return to some form of Jewish independence under much looser Roman suzerainty. In 4 BCE Varus, as governor of Syria, had allowed the Jews to send a deputation of fifty envoys to Augustus to request autonomy for the nation—by which they must have meant primarily freedom from Herodian rule. But since then Judaea had known glory under a popular Jewish king, Agrippa I, and it was only twenty-two years since his reign had been ended by his premature death. The paucity of Roman troops stationed in Jerusalem suggests that Rome was not too concerned what went on in this unimportant territory, provided that Roman interests were not actually harmed. Nero was to proclaim the freedom of Greece either later in this same year or in 67, an act of propaganda with no substantive effect on the government of the province. For Judaea similarly to change its status by a stroke of the pen was not impossible, difficult though it is now to imagine in the light of what actually occurred. And indeed the Romans in 66 might well have been concerned simply to save face in Jerusalem rather than instigate more drastic upheaval. The emperor had been distracted by the conspiracy of a magnificent and popular but politically inept aristocrat named Gaius Calpurnius Piso in the previous year, and he had reacted by killing a great number of his erstwhile supporters as his suspicions became paranoid. Following precedents on previous occasions when there had been minor problems in Judaea, the governor of Syria, Cestius Gallus, marched south to restore order. King Agrippa, who joined him, could reasonably hope that he would soon be back in his role as guardian of the Temple, trying to select High Priests more effective in controlling the population and at the same time more amenable to wayward Roman governors than the present Temple authorities. The declaration of war had been the cessation of loyal sacrifices in the Jerusalem sanctuary. It would make sense if the immediate Roman aim was to ensure that such sacrifices started again.29

What caused such a drastic change in the following four years? The crucial element which raised the level of Roman suppression of unrest in Jerusalem from a police action to a full-scale military operation, involving thousands of troops, was, as we saw in the Prologue, the failure of Cestius Gallus to restore order in the summer of 66 CE, and, above all, the huge loss of men and equipment during his withdrawal from Jerusalem. Such damage to the prestige of the state required retaliation, and the use of collective punishments to deter opposition in the provinces was a standard Roman procedure. The infliction of punishment would require a major military operation, but its seriousness should not be exaggerated. The sixty thousand troops allocated to Vespasian for the task of teaching the Jews a lesson were significantly more than had been deployed for the invasion of Britain in 43 CE, and it is tempting in retrospect to see the huge size of his forces as evidence that the rebellion of the Jews was seen as a major threat to Roman hegemony, but a different explanation is more plausible: Vespasian was given command of this number of troops simply because they were available in the region and otherwise unemployed after campaigns against Armenia and Parthia by the greatest of Nero's generals, Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo, had ended. Three legions had been transferred in succession from the Balkans in the late 50s to increase Rome's military strength in Syria for these campaigns, and they now lacked any military role. Nero did not intend using them for another expansionary campaign which would end either in defeat, and a loss of prestige, or (equally undesirable) in victory and the elevation of a new general to become a potential threat. As Corbulo himself had discovered early in Nero's reign, without something to do, the legions in Syria went soft and lost morale. Participation in a punitive expedition to Judaea would be good for the troops.

That the Roman assault on Jerusalem four years later was far more intense than a mere punitive expedition might have been explained by the extent of Jewish opposition once the revolt had started and an independent Jewish state was established in Jerusalem, but in fact the Jewish state was characterized less by organized hostility to Rome than by internecine struggles for power. A group of bandit sicarii tried to usurp leadership of the city but, when defeated, took themselves off to Herod's fortress on the rocky outcrop of Masada by the Dead Sea, where they took no further part in the war until Jerusalem had been captured. Lacklustre defence of territory outside Jerusalem pushed thousands of refugees into the capital city, where they vied for influence, with Galileans under John of Gischala pitted against Zealots from the villages of northern Judaea, and both opposed to the Idumaeans from the south, led by Simon son of Gioras. Between the retreat of Cestius Gallus and the start of the siege of Jerusalem in spring 70, Rome faced no resistance of any consequence—certainly not enough to warrant the destruction of the Temple in retaliation.

A change in Roman policy might also have been warranted if the declaration of an independent state in Jerusalem had evoked a mass uprising by the Jews in the rest of the Roman empire, but that strikingly failed to occur, although Cassius Dio states in his brief account of the siege of the city that “the Jews [in Jerusalem included] many from the place itself and many of those who professed the same customs, not only from the Roman empire but also from beyond the Euphrates.” Despite Dio's assertion, the only diaspora Jews explicitly named by Josephus among the defenders of the city were from Adiabene in Mesopotamia—they included sons and kinsmen of their king Izates, who (as we saw in Chapter 4) had converted to Judaism some decades earlier. If other Jews came, from Asia Minor, Syria or Egypt, or indeed from Rome, Josephus kept silent about them, in contrast to his numerous references to groups and individuals from within the homeland. Perhaps Dio meant only to refer to Jews from the regions immediately adjacent to Judaea, such as Transjordan and Galilee. It is possible that Josephus was trying to disguise from his Roman readers the extent to which diaspora Jews had been involved in revolt, but it is more likely that most diaspora Jews distanced themselves from a quarrel which was not theirs. It will be recalled that the universal Jewish revulsion at Gaius' intended sacrilege in the Temple in 40 had led Philo temporarily to forget the parochial concerns of the Jews of Alexandria and Agrippa I to risk both his fortune and his life by confronting the tyrant emperor. The comparative passivity of diaspora Jews in 66–70 was in marked contrast, and suggests that they did not think that the future of the Temple cult itself was under threat.30

Not that declining to participate in the fighting in Judaea necessarily saved diaspora Jews from being dragged unwillingly into the fallout of the conflict in the homeland. Even before Cestius Gallus had been defeated in August 66, the Jews who lived as minorities in gentile cities close to the borders of the land of Israel found themselves dangerously vulnerable. In volatile Alexandria in the spring of 66, a riot began “now that disorder had become general among others,” when Greeks holding a public meeting noted that many Jews had infiltrated the assembly in the amphitheatre.31 Three of the Jews were burned alive, and the Jewish community rioted in revenge. Only deployment against the Jews of the two legions stationed on the city outskirts restored order. The ferocity of the Roman response may partly be explained by the need of the governor of Egypt, Tiberius Julius Alexander, himself an Alexandrian Jew, to demonstrate at this time of crisis that he was prepared to act firmly against his own people.

Even in places where Jews had enjoyed good relations with their fellow citizens in previous years, the conflagration in Jerusalem inevitably raised questions of loyalty. Neighbours who had coexisted in peace for years polarized according to their political affiliations. Pogroms threatened in many places close to Judaea and even as far away as Antioch in Syria. The reactions of the gentile civil authorities varied, some controlling, some abetting the violence, as Josephus records:

The inhabitants of Ascalon slew two thousand five hundred, those of Ptolemais two thousand, besides putting multitudes in irons. The Tyrians dispatched a considerable number, but imprisoned the majority in chains; similarly the people of Hippos and Gadara made away with the more daring of their enemies and kept the timid folk in custody; and so with the remaining cities of Syria, the action of each being governed by their feelings of hatred or fear of their Jewish neighbours. Only Anti-och, Sidon and Apamea spared the residents and refused either to kill or to imprison a single Jew; perhaps, with their own vast populations, the cities disdained the possibility of Jewish risings, but what mainly influenced them, in my opinion, was their pity for men who showed no revolutionary intentions. The people of Gerasa not only abstained from maltreating the Jews who remained with them, but escorted to the frontiers any who chose to emigrate.32

In his autobiography, Josephus states that “the inhabitants of the surrounding cities of Syria proceeded to lay hands on and kill, with their wives and children, the Jewish residents among them, without the slightest ground of complaint; for they had neither entertained any idea of revolt from Rome nor harboured any enmity or designs against the Syrians.” The protestation, though quite possibly true, was disingenuous, for in his Jewish War he reveals that the Jews living in the areas closer to Jerusalem had fallen victim to provocation of their gentile neighbours by the Jerusalem revolutionaries, who had sent detachments to pillage their land and villages. The hatred shown by these Jewish rebels to the local gentile population had in turn been sparked off by the massacre of the Jews in Caesarea, where “the Cae-sareans massacred the Jews who lived among them, so that within one hour more than twenty thousand were slaughtered and Caesarea was completely emptied of Jews, for those who fled were arrested by Florus and taken in chains to the dockyards.” But the enmity had still deeper roots. It was local gentiles who had served as auxiliary troops in the Roman units which had acted so brutally in Jerusalem in the preceding months leading up to the outbreak of war. Gentile soldiers in a squadron of cavalry and five infantry cohorts recruited from Caesarea and Sebaste had expressed unseemly joy in 44 when Agrippa I, whom they considered too favourable to the Jews, died prematurely:

They hurled insults, too foul to be mentioned, at the deceased; and all who were then on military service—and they were a considerable number—went off to their homes, and seizing the images of the king's daughters [Berenice and Drusilla] carried them with one accord to the brothels, where they set them up on the roofs and offered them every possible sort of insult, doing things too indecent to be reported. Moreover, they reclined in the public places and celebrated feasts for all the people, wearing garlands and using scented unguents; they poured libations to Charon [ferryman of the dead], and exchanged toasts in celebration of the king's death.

Josephus asserts explicitly that these military units, composed of men from Caesarea and Sebaste who had shown such disrespect to the dead Agrippa, proved twenty-two years later “to be the source of the greatest disasters to the Jews by sowing the seeds of war in Florus' time.”33

In the months following the defeat of Cestius Gallus in the summer of 66 the rebels in Jerusalem were too intent on establishing and defending their new-found freedom, and in fighting among themselves, to be able to embroil diaspora Jews farther in their fight. Jews living at a distance from the new state might hope to be left in peace. But such quietism did not protect the Jews of Antioch, where affairs in Jerusalem were presumably much discussed because, as the capital of the province of Syria and the largest city of the empire after Rome and Alexandria, this was the place from which Cestius Gallus and his troops had set out, and where Vespasian was mustering his army for the renewed assault. The Jews of the city had been left in peace in the spring of 66, but on Vespasian's arrival in the late autumn a certain Antiochus, himself a Jew and indeed the son of the chief magistrate of the local Jewish community, denounced his father and his fellow Jews as traitors intent on burning the city down. Fear of a Jewish fifth column was further stoked when Antiochus produced some Jews from foreign cities and accused them as accomplices in the plot. The implication that being Jewish was incompatible with being a loyal citizen of Antioch was explicit when Antiochus introduced a sacrifice test to establish which Jews supported the city: those who refused to sacrifice to the pagan gods were killed. As a renegade Jew, Antiochus clearly knew where to aim his blows, and his next step was to prohibit resting on the Sabbath. According to Josephus, Roman troops were enlisted to ensure that Jews on the Sabbath “did exactly as the other days,” though quite how this was achieved is obscure. For a short time the observance of the Sabbath was abolished not only in Antioch but “also in the other cities equally.” Josephus does not specify which cities and where, nor how the persecution came to an end, but it is clear that Antiochus was still very much in evidence, and creating dangers for his former co-religionists, after the war was over. The travails into which innocent diaspora Jews were thus drawn by the turmoil in the mother city renders all the more striking their apparent reluctance to commit themselves to the defence of Jerusalem. At some level, presumably, they saw the distant war as none of their business. They lived a Jewish life happily enough as minority communities under Roman rule and protection. Perhaps they hoped that in due course Roman rule would be reestablished in Judaea, the rebel leaders punished, and a new pro-Roman High Priest installed in the Temple. Certainly, they had no reason to believe that the war which broke out in 66 would effectively result in a clash of civilizations and change the face of Judaism for ever.34

NONE OF these Jews, whether in the diaspora or in Jerusalem, could have possibly known about the change in the world political order in 68 CE which changed altogether the significance in terms of Roman politics of the Judaean campaign. The brutal realities of the exercise of power in the Roman world became dramatically clear when Nero died violently during the long year of struggle from mid-68 to December 69, during which five emperors—Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian—ruled in turn, and thousands of Romans were killed, a return to mass civil violence to a degree unknown in Roman society in the hundred years since Octavian had established autocracy through the crushing defeat of Mark Antony at Actium in 31 BCE.

That we can narrate these events of January 69 onwards in detail is due primarily to the writings of Tacitus, whose account of them survives in the first five books of his Histories, which originally took the story from 69 to the death of Domitian in 96. Tacitus describes the work on which he is entering as “a period rich in disasters, terrible with battles, torn by civil struggles, horrible even in peace.” He is not, as he confesses, an unbiased witness: “I had no acquaintance with Galba, Otho or Vitellius, through either kindness or injury at their hands. [But] I cannot deny that my political career owed its beginning to Vespasian; that Titus advanced it; and that Domitian carried it further; but those who profess inviolable fidelity to truth must write of no man with affection or with hatred.” The shock of renewed civil bloodshed was immense. It was not on the scale of the slaughter in the decade and more before Actium, but it involved far more of the Roman people than the elite intrigues and trials surrounding imperial politics for the first half of the first century CE. Tacitus wrote that “after the battle of Actium … the interests of peace required that all power should be concentrated in the hands of one man.” The principle remained generally acknowledged, but the struggles to decide which man should be supreme were as potentially destabilizing as the last gasp of the Republic had been.35

The start of insurrection in 68 in fact showed the imperial system of divide and rule in effective operation. Gaius Iulius Vindex, governor of Gallia Lugdunensis and a local Gallic aristocrat, threw off his allegiance to Nero in January 68, proclaiming (according to the coins he minted) the “salvation of the human race,” “Jupiter Liberator” and “Rome restored.” A man of minor significance on the wider stage of Roman politics, Vindex attempted to garner support by writing to other governors, some of whom inevitably leaked the conspiracy to the emperor. All governors and army commanders were instantly pushed into the unenviable position that hesitation to condemn the uprising would lead to loss of imperial favour and almost certain death. In an episode now shrouded in uncertainty, the commander of the armies of the upper Rhine, Verginius Rufus, marched into central Gaul and met Vindex and his troops at Vesontio in late May. Since Vindex came to Vesontio with far fewer troops than Verginius Rufus, and since those troops were much less well equipped and trained, it is probable that he believed Rufus willing to join him in the rebellion against Nero. If so, his hopes were destroyed by the loyalty of Rufus' troops to Nero, or perhaps their dislike of Vindex's soldiers. In any case, the two armies fought, Vindex's forces were roundly defeated, and Vindex committed suicide. What Rufus thought at the time cannot now be discovered, but his epitaph, following his peaceful end in honoured old age thirty years later, constituted a masterly rewriting of history: “Here lies Rufus, who once, after Vindex had been defeated, liberated the imperial power, not for himself, but for his country.” The whole episode, played out on a battlefield far from Italy, had left Nero unscathed.36

More effective in the transfer of power were contemporaneous events in Spain. The governor of Tarraconensis, Servius Sulpicius Galba, was in his early seventies, came from an ancient patrician family with a history of distinguished political service to the state in the Republic, had been consul thirty-five years before, and had been awarded triumphal insignia for his military achievements earlier in his impressive career. It is possible that Vindex approached him as a potential rival to Nero, but Vindex's failure and death obscured any such link in the later traditions about those years. What is certain is that Galba contrived to have himself proclaimed by his troops as representative of the Senate and people of Rome. His coins bore legends such as “Liberty of the Roman People.” Other governors and commanders in Spain, including crucially Marcus Salvius Otho, legate of Lusitania, and Titus Vinius Rufinus, commander of the only Spanish legion, decided to support the insurrection; their backing provided sufficient impetus to eradicate local opposition. Control of Spain still did not obviously convey control of the wider empire: the legend on Galba's coins which asserted “Concord of the Spains and Gauls” revealed that such concord could by no means be taken for granted. In any case, it was a long way from Spain to Rome, and Nero sent a general to northern Italy to raise an army to ward off the expected invasion. It was still quite possible for Nero to hold on and wait for Galba's coalition of the ambitious and disaffected to crumble. But Nero did not hold on. His decision to capitulate may have had less to do with Galba than with a contemporaneous revolt by Clodius Macer, commander of the Third Legion, which was based in Africa and could thus cut off supplies of grain to the city of Rome—Macer seems to have operated independently of Galba, since it was to be by Galba's order that he was eventually executed in October of this same year. In any case it must have seemed to Nero that his authority had collapsed, and that his generals were rebelling on all sides without fear of retaliation by their colleagues. He planned to flee to Egypt, at which point the praetorian guard deserted him on the grounds that he was deserting Rome, and the Senate, taking its cue from the praetorians as it had done on the death of Gaius twenty-seven years before, proclaimed him a public enemy. Suetonius describes his end:

Phaon [his freedman] urged him to hide for a time in a pit, from which sand had been dug, but he declared that he would not go underground while still alive … At last, while his companions one and all urged him to save himself as soon as possible from the indignities that threatened him, he bade them dig a grave in his presence, proportioned to the size of his own person, collect any bits of marble that could be found, and at the same time bring water and wood for presently disposing of his body. As each of these things was done, he wept and said again and again: “What an artist I am as I perish!” … And now the horsemen were approaching who had orders to take him off alive. When he heard them, he … drove a dagger into his throat, aided by Epaphroditus, his secretary. He was half-dead when a centurion rushed in, and as he placed a cloak to the wound, pretending that he had come to aid him, Nero merely gasped: “Too late!” and “This is fidelity!” With these words he was gone, with eyes so set and starting from the sockets that all who saw him shuddered with horror.37

All Galba needed to do was to proceed to Rome in state and accept the homage of his subjects. After the excesses of the previous regime, it might seem easy enough to achieve popularity and security. In practice, however, frugality was castigated as meanness and the exercise of patronage that delighted the fortunate made enemies of those who were overlooked. It took time for a usurper to acquire the aura of inviolability which had protected even Gaius and Nero at their most bizarre, but Galba was not to be vouchsafed the time he needed: Nero died in early June 68; Galba was killed on 15 January 69. Galba's undoing was his advanced age. It was obvious, since he was in his early seventies, that power must quite soon pass to a successor. He had no son, so there was considerable pressure on him to adopt an heir. On the other hand, adoption of an appropriate successor could itself be dangerous, since it might encourage the ambitious to cultivate the prospective emperor rather than the incumbent. Galba's solution was to present to the Senate on 10 January 69 a young man of no political achievements or even ambitions. Lucius Calpurnius Piso Frugi Licinianus was an obscure scion of an originally illustrious family. In his early thirties, he had spent the last years of Nero's rule in exile, and he seems to have enjoyed almost no popularity with the wider population of Rome. The reaction of Galba's most energetic lieutenant, Otho, who had marched with him from Spain, was swift. If he was not to be designated heir, he would take power for himself. The praetorian cohorts were disgruntled in any case by Galba's failure to pay to them the bribe promised by their commander in June the previous year as reward for betraying Nero. On 15 January Otho went with Galba to sacrifice at the temple of Apollo, only to slip away from the imperial entourage and be taken by twenty-three soldiers to the praetorians' camp, where he was greeted warmly. Suetonius again provides a lurid account of the last moments of the aged emperor, hopelessly at the mercy of hostile troops as he went through the Forum, where

the horsemen who had been ordered to slay him, spurring their horses through the streets and dispersing the crowd of civilians, caught sight of him from a distance and halted for a moment. Then they rushed upon him again and butchered him, abandoned by his followers. Some say that at the beginning of the disturbance he cried out, “What mean you, fellow soldiers? I am yours and you are mine,” and that he even promised them money. But the more general account is that he offered them his neck without resistance, urging them to act and strike, since it was their will.38

Otho thus came to power through open and vicious bloodshed on the streets of Rome, but at least in his coup the bloodshed was limited in extent. Piso died on the same day as Galba, as did a number of other associates, but the violence by which the change in regime had been effected caused little disruption to the rest of the city, let alone the wider empire. Otho justified his murderous ambition by stressing his own ties with Nero, whom Galba had supplanted, restoring Nero's statues which had been torn down, and stressing the friendship Nero had shown him during the earlier and better years of his rule. In Rome, the tactic seems to have worked among all those groups which mattered—the Senate, the people and (above all) the praetorians. But Otho, who had been confined by Nero to Lusitania as governor from 58 until Galba's conspiracy, had enjoyed no opportunity to win a military reputation, had never been consul, and had no great following among other provincial commanders and armies. The threat to his power thus came not from within his own entourage but from Germany, where the illustrious Aulus Vitellius, a generation his senior and consul more than twenty years previously, was commander of the army on the lower Rhine and was persuaded by his troops to seek supreme power for himself—and, of course, less directly, to ensure thereby that they would profit from his victory.

Neither Vitellius nor his followers seem to have been particularly disenchanted with Otho. Their disaffection (or ambition) had been already apparent on 1 January 69, when the legions at Mainz refused to swear loyalty to Galba, but the changed regime at Rome seems to have made no difference to their aims. The German armies crossed the Alps at extraordinary speed, aided by weather milder than normal for February and early March, in order to march on Rome before Otho should be reinforced by troops from other provinces, particularly from the Balkans. Otho marched north to the Po valley and chose to meet Vitellius' troops in battle at Cremona on 14 April. Only few reinforcements had as yet arrived, and he was greatly outnumbered, but this was itself a reason to confront the rebels immediately, since by taking his troops north Otho had left all the rest of Italy, including the city of Rome itself, vulnerable to attack if some of Vitellius' forces were to leave his main army and march on Rome. In any case, Otho did not delay. Battle was joined and, after heavy loss of life, decisively lost. Tacitus' approval of Otho's bravery in his suicide is expressed in an affecting speech to his supporters attributed to him by the historian:

To expose such courageous and brave men as you to further dangers, I reckon too great a price for my life. The greater the hope you offer me, if it were my wish to live, so much the more glorious will be my death … Others may hold the power longer than I; none shall give it up more bravely. Would you have me suffer so many of Rome's young men, such noble armies, to be again cut down and lost to the state? Let me carry with me the thought of your willingness to die for me; but you must live.

The precise words of the speech are of course Tacitus', not Otho's, and the favourable picture of Otho's last days owes much to the vilification of Vitellius by Tacitus' sources, for whom Vitellius, as the opponent of Vespasian, was a figure for denigration. In fact, there was little that Otho could have done once the battle was lost and the road to Rome lay open to his enemies; to hope for salvation from the Balkan legions, when and if they arrived, would have been hopelessly optimistic. The Senate, apprised of the news, compliantly bestowed imperial power on Vitellius on 19 April and sent a delegation north to Pavia, where it met the new autocrat in mid-May. Soon he was accepting the title “Augustus” by popular demand.39

The process through which Vitellius in turn yielded his power and his life to Titus Flavius Vespasianus, the last emperor of 69, was similar to his own coup in most respects—a fact rather embarrassing in antiquity to Flavian historians such as Josephus and (retrospectively) Tacitus. Vespasian had been appointed in 66 by Nero to command the Roman forces against the rebellious Jews partly because of his political insignificance. The son of a tax farmer, he was in his late fifties and had enjoyed a worthy but not a brilliant career. He had been granted no special favours by Tiberius or Gaius as he made his laborious way up the senatorial ladder in his twenties. He made a breakthrough of a kind as a legionary commander during the conquest of Britain by Claudius in 43, and in 51, aged forty-two, he reached the consulship. In the early 60s he was governor of Africa, a post that brought prestige but no power, since it involved command of no legions. Nero by October 66 was paranoid about conspiracies. The plot centred round Gaius Calpurnius Piso had been foiled the previous year, but not before the considerable extent of disaffection within the political class had been revealed, leading to suspicions of others who had probably not been involved. Among those whom Nero compelled to commit suicide was Corbulo, the most successful general of his time, who had won remarkable victories against Armenia and Parthia in the late 50s and early 60s. Under imperial disfavour Corbulo took his own life in October 66, just after the failure of Cestius Gallus' fateful expedition to Jerusalem. Nero could not brook the elevation of another successful general who might be a threat to his own security. Instead, he preferred to entrust the control of three legions for the Judaean war to Vespasian precisely because he was a competent mediocrity. That such a man might become emperor, without breeding or contacts among the aristocracy, was unimaginable. Suetonius summarizes succinctly: “Since to put down this rebellion [of the Jews] required a considerable army with a leader of no little enterprise, yet one to whom so great power could be entrusted without risk, he [Vespasian] was chosen for the task, both as a man of tried energy and as one in no wise to be feared, because of the obscurity of his family and name.”40

According to Suetonius, this obscure senator decided to seek supreme power for himself, while Otho and Vitellius were striving for power, because he was spurred on by portents. “When he was dining, an ox that was ploughing shook off its yoke, burst into the dining-room, and after scattering the servants, fell at the very feet of Vespasian as he reclined at table, and bowed its neck as if suddenly tired out.” Local oracles in Judaea usefully confirmed divine approval of his ambition: “When he consulted the oracle of the god of Carmel in Judaea, the lots were highly encouraging, promising that whatever he planned or wished, however great it might be, would come to pass. And one of his noble captives, Josephus, declared most confidently as he was being put in chains that he would soon be released by the same man, who would then, however, be emperor.” But Suetonius combines this account, of divine blessing for ambition fulfilled, with a more prosaic version in which Vespasian was the pawn of the Danu-bian and eastern legions, eager for the rewards of victory in civil war, much as Vitellius had been manoeuvred by the legions on the Rhine:

They took it into their heads to select and appoint an emperor, saying that they were just as good as the Spanish army which had appointed Galba, or the praetorian guard which had elected Otho, or the German army which had chosen Vitellius. Accordingly the names of all the consular governors who were serving anywhere were taken up, and since objection was made to the rest for one reason or another, while some members of the Third Legion, which had been transferred from Syria to Moesia just before the death of Nero, highly commended Vespasian, they unanimously agreed on him and forthwith inscribed his name on all their banners … When their action became known, Tiberius Alexander, prefect of Egypt, was the first to compel his legions to take the oath for Vespasian on the Kalends of July, the day which was afterwards celebrated as that of his accession; then the army in Judaea swore allegiance to him personally on the fifth day before the Ides of July.

In fact, the timing of these “spontaneous” declarations of enthusiasm for Vespasian, and the support expressed by Gaius Licinius Mucianus, governor of Syria and previously on poor terms with Vespasian, allows little doubt that the bid for power was carefully planned. It is an interesting question whether a conspiracy fully formed by early July would have been aimed at the removal of Otho if he had still been in power. As it was, Vespasian's supporters could portray themselves as intent on revenge: “The enterprise was greatly forwarded by the circulation of a copy of a letter of the late emperor Otho to Vespasian, whether genuine or forged, urging him with the utmost earnestness to vengeance and expressing the hope that he would come to the aid of his country.”41

The original plan seems to have been for Mucianus to advance on Italy from Syria while Vespasian went to Alexandria in Egypt and, if necessary, interrupted the flow of grain to Rome in order to make Vitellius unpopular among the citizens (a risky strategy). Vespasian did indeed go to Alexandria, leaving the Judaean campaign in the highly competent hands of his son Titus, but Mucianus was anticipated in Italy by the Danubian legions under the legionary general Antonius Primus, who declared loyalty to Vespasian and, in the late afternoon of 24 October, destroyed Vitellius' forces in the same place, Cremona, where Vitellius had defeated Otho in April. Cremona itself was sacked. It was said that fifty thousand died in the battle and that the fire in Cremona lasted for four days. Primus pressed on to Rome and entered the city on 21 December. Vitellius, unlike Otho, had tried to delay the inevitable, with horrible results:

The foremost of the army had now forced their way in, and since no one opposed them, were ransacking everything in the usual way. They dragged Vitellius from his hiding-place and when they asked him his name (for they did not know him) and if he knew where Vitellius was, he attempted to escape them by a lie. Being soon recognized, he did not cease to beg that he be confined for a time, even in the prison, alleging that he had something to say of importance to the safety of Vespasian. But they bound his arms behind his back, put a noose about his neck, and dragged him with rent garments and half-naked to the Forum. All along the Sacred Way he was greeted with mockery and abuse, his head held back by the hair, as is common with criminals, and even the point of a sword placed under his chin, so that he could not look down but must let his face be seen. Some pelted him with dung and ordure, others called him incendiary and glutton, and some of the mob even taunted him with his bodily defects … At last on the Stairs of Wailing he was tortured to pieces with exquisite refinement and then dispatched and dragged off with a hook to the Tiber.

The Senate, of course, immediately conferred all the necessary powers on Vespasian as the new emperor—although he dated the start of his rule not to their legal blessing but from 1 July, when the troops had first acclaimed him.42

Vespasian found it convenient to disown the barbarous violence of Antonius Primus, claiming that he had acted without authority. Primus, after a brief period of glory in control of Rome, was quietly sidelined into obscurity, living on for at least twenty-five years in retirement in his home town of Tolosa (Toulouse). Vespasian could portray his own actions as free of the taint of bloodshed and his elevation to power as the result simply of his popularity with the soldiers and the people, although in terms of real politics such a claim was blatantly untrue. Victory could only have been won by military means. But a different justification for the regime's seizure of power was needed to render the coup d'état palatable to a Roman populace which, as we have seen, had clear ideas of what gave status to political leaders. The new emperor chose to base his claim to the purple on his military services to the Roman state through the defeat of the Jews.

The death of Nero, the demise of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, the struggle for power by Galba, Otho and Vitellius, and, above all, the bid for the purple by Vespasian were all completely unexpected. Suddenly in July 69 the commander of Roman forces against Jerusalem was no longer an obscure senator of mediocre talent and minimal prestige in the court of the emperor. Now he was, or hoped to be, emperor himself. Vespasian's bid, and his need to advertise a victory over foreigners to give it legitimacy, explain the energy with which the attack on Jerusalem was suddenly prosecuted. Vespasian had won power in Rome from a distance. He had stayed in Alexandria, far away from the shedding of Roman blood through which his supporters, especially Antonius Primus at Cremona in October 69, won him power. Such civil bloodletting was not an auspicious start to a new reign. Vespasian's image urgently needed the gloss of foreign conquest— the surest foundation of authority for a Roman politician—for him to be portrayed in the capital as warrior hero and saviour of the state. Vespasian delayed his own journey to Rome until the summer of 70, in the meantime instructing his son Titus, left behind in Judaea, to win the war as rapidly and comprehensively as possible, regardless of the cost.43

At the heart of Titus' eventual victory was thus the ruthlessness of his assault, which paid little heed either to the damage caused to the city or to the losses on his own side. By the fall of Jerusalem huge numbers of Roman soldiers were dead and many more wounded. Precisely how heavy the Roman casualties were, we cannot now tell: it was not in the interest of Titus, or Josephus, to advertise the figures, and governments are often reticent about the number of dead on their own side when they wish to emphasize a glorious victory. In a glittering parade held in the centre of his former camp at the conclusion of the siege, Titus handed out gold and silver insignia to those who had been distinguished for valour during the war, but so far as is known from Josephus' account, he made no mention of those who had made the supreme sacrifice, despite the uplifting rhetoric about “the immortality reserved for those who fall in the frenzy of battle” which, according to Josephus, he had used when encouraging his troops to assault the walls at peril of their lives.44 The number of casualties was a direct result of haste. Titus was under pressure to capture Jerusalem quickly. The pressure was not military but political. A free Jerusalem would be no greater threat to Roman imperial power in 71 than in 70. Reports from deserters confirmed that starving out the defenders was proving successful. It was only necessary to wait. But Titus had his eye less on Jerusalem than on Rome, and the need to proclaim to the population of the imperial city that his father, the new emperor, acclaimed by his own soldiers just over a year ago in July 69 but otherwise with no claim whatever to the purple, was not a thuggish nonentity propelled to power by the slaughter of Roman citizens in civil conflict but a hero of the Roman state who had won victory in Judaea. Vespasian had been in Alexandria in Egypt since the early autumn of 69. In July 70 he set off for Rome to be greeted by his subjects in the capital city, where he arrived in late September or early October. When he left Alexandria Jerusalem was still under siege. He relied on Titus to complete the task at speed.

The final assault, which began as we have seen in the early summer of 70, left much of the city in ruins. Much was destroyed by fire, accidental or deliberate, during the fighting, and more was devastated by looting after resistance had ended. But Josephus writes specifically that, even at the height of the siege, Titus had not intended this destruction to include the Temple. At a council of his generals Titus declared that “he would not wreak vengeance on inanimate objects instead of men, nor under any circumstances burn down so magnificent a work; for the loss would affect the Romans, inasmuch as it would be an ornament to the empire if it stood.”45

Some have doubted the truth of Josephus' claim, especially since the fourth-century Christian historian Sulpicius Severus relays a precisely opposing view, apparently derived from a lost passage of Tacitus' Histories, that

Titus summoned his council, and before taking action consulted it whether he should overthrow a sanctuary of such workmanship, since it seemed to many that a sacred building, one more remarkable than any other human work, should not be destroyed. For if preserved it would testify to the moderation of the Romans, while if demolished it would be a perpetual sign of cruelty. On the other hand, others, and Titus himself, expressed their opinion that the Temple should be destroyed without delay, in order that the religion of the Jews and Christians should be more completely exterminated.

Josephus certainly might have wanted to pretend that the Temple's destruction was accidental, even if it was untrue. But there are powerful reasons to accept his version of events. He was writing within ten years of the council of war on which he was reporting. He had been in Jerusalem at the time of the siege, and had been close enough to the headquarters to know what orders emerged from the emperor's council, even if he did not know precisely who had expressed which opinion. His readers included Titus himself, and it would have been unwise to write something about the general which was patently false, since Josephus relied on imperial patronage. Such considerations apply particularly strongly to an assertion about his leadership which Titus can hardly have welcomed: the great general will not have been happy with the implication of Josephus' narrative, that his desire to save the Temple had been foiled by his inability to impose proper discipline on his troops. Josephus' assertion looks odd in the light of Titus' celebration of the Temple's demise once it had burned down, but that gives reason to believe the assertion, not to dismiss it.46

According to Josephus, the eventual conflagration came about by accident:

At this moment, one of the soldiers, awaiting no orders and with no horror of so dread a deed, but moved by some supernatural impulse, snatched a brand from the burning timber and, hoisted up by one of his comrades, flung the fiery missile through a low golden door, which gave access on the north side to the chambers surrounding the sanctuary. As the flame shot up, a cry, as poignant as the tragedy, arose from the Jews, who flocked to the rescue, lost to all thought of self-preservation, all husbanding of strength, now that the object of all their past vigilance was vanishing. Titus was resting in his tent after the engagement, when a messenger rushed in with the tidings. Starting up just as he was, he ran to the Temple to arrest the conflagration; behind him followed his whole staff of generals, while in their train came the excited legionaries, and there was all the hubbub and confusion attending the disorderly movement of so large a force. Caesar, both by voice and hand, signalled to the combatants to extinguish the fire; but they neither heard his shouts, drowned in the louder din which filled their ears, nor heeded his beckoning hand, distracted as they were by the fight or their fury. The impetuosity of the legionaries, when they joined the fray, neither exhortation nor threat could restrain; passion was for all the only leader. Crushed together about the entrances, many were trampled down by their companions; many, stumbling on the still hot and smouldering ruins of the porticoes, suffered the fate of the vanquished. As they drew nearer to the sanctuary they pretended not even to hear Caesar's orders and shouted to those in front of them to throw in the firebrands. The insurgents, for their part, were now powerless to help; and on all sides was carnage and flight. Most of the slain were civilians, weak and unarmed people, each butchered where he was caught. Around the altar a pile of corpses was accumulating; down the steps of the sanctuary flowed a stream of blood, and the bodies of the victims killed above went sliding to the bottom.

According to Josephus, even at this stage Titus believed that the structure of the Temple might be saved. He rushed about, trying, by personal appeals, to persuade the soldiers to extinguish the fire. But they did not obey:

Their respect for Caesar and their fear of the officer who was endeavouring to check them were overpowered by their rage, their hatred of the Jews, and a lust for battle more unruly still. Most of them were further stimulated by the hope of plunder, believing that the interior was full of money and actually seeing that all the surroundings were made of gold. However, the end was precipitated by one of those who had entered the building, and who, when Caesar rushed out to restrain the troops, thrust a firebrand, in the darkness, into the hinges of the gate. At once a flame shot up from the interior, Caesar and his generals withdrew, and there was none left to prevent those outside from kindling a blaze. Thus, against Caesar's wishes, was the Temple set on fire.47

Once the deed was done, Titus had no choice but to celebrate. To proclaim to the Roman people that the destruction had come about through incompetence would be to allow the new regime to begin not with a famous victory over a dangerous enemy but with sacrilege on a grand scale. Perhaps Titus' attitude had been more ambivalent than Josephus suggests and there had been more than one council of war, likely enough in such fraught circumstances, and on a different occasion Titus had shown himself willing enough to countenance the Temple's demise, as Sulpicius Severus reported. It was not an easy decision, and both historians record that divergent opinions were expressed.

At any rate, with the Temple in ruins, Titus set about depicting the religion of the Jews as not worthy to exist, and the Temple's destruction as an act of piety to the gods of the Roman world. The sophist Philostratus, who wrote in the early third century, reflected this theology in an incident recorded in his life of the pagan sage Apollonius of Tyana, a contemporary of Titus, writing that “after Titus had taken Jerusalem, and when everything was filled with corpses, the neighbouring peoples offered him a crown; but he disclaimed any such honour to himself, saying that it was not he himself that had accomplished this exploit, but that he had merely given his arms to God, who had so shown his anger.” The outcome of the war seems to have been very different from that intended by the Romans in 66. A campaign that had begun in order to ensure that Jews should offer regular sacrifices to their God in Jerusalem for the well-being of the emperor had ended by making any such offering impossible. The destruction of Jerusalem in 70 was the product of no long-term policy on either side. It had come about through a combination of accidents, most of them unrelated in origin to the conflict: the death of Nero, leading to Vespasian's bid for power in Rome and Titus' quest for the propaganda coup of a rapid conquest of Jerusalem, and the devastating effect in the summer heat of a firebrand thrown by a soldier into the Temple of God.48

Even in the Temple there were images of a humanlike figure on the coins: because of their reliably high silver content, Tyrian silver shekels were the coin preferred by the Temple authorities for receipt of offerings and other payments. It is a bizarre fact that the shekels approved for this sacred Jewish purpose depicted the Tyrian god Melkart, identified with the Greek god Heracles.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!